Thursday, September 23, 2010

PC Repair: Slow PC & Testing Memory with Memtest86+ v4.00

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I recently performed a free computer assessment for a new home customer. They were struggling for the past year with their desktop performing extremely slow. They told me that they have taken it to several places about the slowness issue including BestBuy's GeekSquad and a local computer guy in their area. Every time they got their PC back from servicing it would be slow again.

But what was slow? I wanted to dig deeper into their issue. They told me it was everything - Internet browsing, general computer functionality, the whole bit. 

Their PC was an old Compaq Presario from 2004 with a 2.8GHz Intel Celeron processor and only 512MB of memory. Right then I knew that 512MB RAM was too little to do anything with a resource hungry operating system such as Windows and all of their newer applications they were running that are mostly meant for newer computers. A bloated McAfee Antivirus was utilizing 14-16% of the CPU every time you want to touch a single file (making that loud hard drive "thinking noise" most people describe. There were a few other bloated applications that probably were also not playing well with the small amount of resources the system could provide it. Going further their ISP was giving them 1.19MB/s download and 0.59MB/s upload bandwidth - but that was because of their remote area. However, all of these factors contributed to the PC's slowness.

First thing I wanted to do was get the computer filled with more memory. When I'm talking about memory I'm talking about Random-Access Memory (RAM) which is the main memory in personal computers, workstations, and all the way up to servers.
First thoughts was this was obviously a 32-bit system and could only utilize a max of 3.3-ish GB of RAM. Looking inside the box I saw only the ability for two RAM modules with one slot already having a 512MB module. I researched the motherboard specs MS-6577 v4.1 which told me that the BIOS could support a maximum of 2GB with PC2700/2100 (333MHz/266MHz) compatible RAM. However, looking into the actual specs for the computer listed by Compaq (HP) said that the BIOS only supported up to 1GB. Getting mixed results I ended up ordering (2) 512MB and (2) 1GB memory sticks from my vendor.

While waiting a couple days for shipping I was thinking more outside the box. The customer told me that they use their computer only for Web surfing, email, and occasional world processing. I asked them if they use or see themselves using that specific PC for anything else (Microsoft only applications). So over the phone I began talking about the benefits of none other than the Linux distribution of Ubuntu!
In a brief summary I told the customer that Ubuntu uses system resources much more efficiently than Windows, it will be more secure and stable than Windows XP without much of any learning curve aside from getting use to use a different user-friendly operating system. They can browse the Internet and check their web mail with Mozilla Firefox along with using's word processor. I kept the conversation basic as I could imagine it would be hard to grasp something like that over the phone and not visually see it. Non the less I was not about to get to technical about Ubuntu such as that Ubuntu 10.04.1 (the version I would install) uses EXT4 file system and unlike Windows with NTFS file system, EXT4 doesn't need to be defragmented!

Today UPS arrived with the memory. First thing I did was take out the old 512MB stick and put in two of the 1GB sticks. I then went into the BIOS and changed the boot order of the machine to allow booting from CD-ROM first. I put in a copy of which turned out to be Ubuntu 10.04.1 Server. One of the options in the first menu of the disc was to "Test Memory" which uses Memtest86+ v4.00. This is a great way to test out the stability of the memory. Any errors at all even just one means you have faulty RAM. You could get by with installing an OS with the RAM and using the machine for a while but in time those couple or that single memory error could come back to haunt you. 

So I ran Memtest86+ on (2) 1GB sticks of PNY PC2700 (333MHz) RAM. Within only 4 minutes of running the test it showed back with errors. In order to better get an idea of which memory module was giving the errors I restarted to test with individual sticks to isolate the issue. The first stick showed errors again within 4 minutes time and the second one is still on the test with over 4hrs in its 5th pass. With this amount of time the module integrity is most likely completely fine. However, there are those out there who run the test overnight. In the past for me if I don't get any errors within the first 2-3 passes then I have always been fine.
So now I have to RMA the (1) 1GB PNY stick and exchange it for another. This has been disappointing but stuff like this does happen. I'm glad that I have a good vendor that allows me to have my own account manager to help me with any issue such as this.

Memtest86+ can be individually downloaded here. Otherwise I like to just use the "Test Memory" option in Ubuntu Live CDs.

For now I could start or wait for the other stick for installing Ubuntu with the good 1GB stick or I'm thinking about making it a dual boot system with Windows XP and Ubuntu 10.04.1 in case they ever would need windows in the future. All the customer really cares about is that they can get online. They realize that the computer is old but I promised them a good price to get their system up and running efficiently without have to spend more money in the near future to get a entirely new system. I hope to get a new working module of RAM through the weekend and have the system all setup by beginning of the week. I offered the customer a temportary replacement laptop to make up for the extra couple days with their PC while I'm wainting on my vendor for the replacement memory. I figured that was the best thing to do right now since many Auto dealerships will give you a loner while they give your vehicle. Just one of the ways Digital Designs LLC cares about our customers and if we take just longer than expected then we make the situation right.

What are your thoughts or experiences with slow computers (besides pure frustration)? What have you done personally to speed them up? Do you upgrade hardware or buy a new computer all together? If you buy a new computer what is your average upgrade cycle - 2, 4, or 5+years?


  1. Ok. First off, you have balls. I wasn't in your situation here, and I don't know how proficient these guys were, but I don't have any clients that I would suggest for them to use Linux.

    In fact, I usually don't even suggest people use another browser either, unless absolutely necessary. It does show the age of most of my customers (which are mostly in the 65+ category) but it is still pretty ballsy move.

  2. To answer your questions, I usually do look at the amount of ram, their processor speed, condition of the hard drive, and condition of the operating system.

    Every time I do some tech work, there are a few tweaks I make, including modifying system properties -> Performance, as well as shutting off a few services, and deleting software which they don't use, and doesn't need to be there. I do also launch msconfig and modify which programs to start up, because this can have a huge affect as well.

    If they are willing to pay for my time, I usually sell them ram, a clean os install, re-install of all of their files and programs, ensuring their antivirus program works (whether free or paid) and depending on the age of the machine, it usually (in my experience) can increase the lifespan of the machine for up to a few more years.

    If they are REALLY wanting the machine to last, I suggest a copy of Spinrite (, and have them run it in maintenance mode every once in a while.

    My customers' computer life cycles are usually between 8 and 10 years. (They have a tech person look at them only after something breaks, virus' are too bad, or the machine is too slow to function at all) Me personally, I will upgrade a component or two between eve 2-4 years. I just added 2 more gb of ram to my desktop machine.

  3. I agree to a certain point - it is unconventional to recommend Linux over Windows to customers. Let alone sometimes recommending Mozilla Firefox as you said such as with various security add-ons vs Microsoft's IE. I know what you mean.

    Keeping in mind my goal: To provide the customer with a solution for keeping their 6+ year old PC alive in a way which should hopefully assist in its lifespan to last them a couple more years or at least until they can afford to upgrade to a new PC.

    They only use the PC for browsing and maybe word processing. Needing to find a way to use less system resources / more efficient utilization of resources the though use of Ubuntu pop-ed into my head. I gave the customer a 30-day warranty that if they want to switch back to Windows XP that I would make it happen for them at no additional cost. That's how confident I am that Ubuntu may be one of the solutions here. The key is that it isn't Free-BSD, Solaris, or Gentoo were talking about here. It's Ubuntu Desktop - "Linux for Human Beings" as they say, steered towards ease of use.

    I will most likely assess the system again once the 2nd 1GB stick ships in and finalize on my decision to only put Ubuntu on or at least dual-boot with Windows & Ubuntu to leave their options open. The customer left me with the freedom to make that choice as long as it meets the solution for them.

  4. Great last post Nick! Some very good tactics to help PC performance on Windows that are sometimes over-looked by many.

    I attempted to enhance some performance settings by reducing the computer's visual effects as you mentioned. But the company called me back to remote back in and change it because one of their Administrative Assistants did like the look of it as much.

    I will have to look more into Spinrite and get a site license in time if I find more of a consistent use for it. A great tool to have - keeping in mind that once computers switch to solid state drives that products like Spinrite will become useless. But I would think it would be a while before solid state become more main-stream anyways.

    My same PC upgrade time is also between 2-4 years.

    You mentioned that you newly installed 2GB more of RAM for you PC. Did you use Memtest86+ or another program to test out the integrity of the memory modules? What memory speed/type did you end up getting?

  5. Nice blog. Didn't know new computer memory could be bad from the start. Never knew there were other choices besides windows and mac! Thanks for the info!


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